BLM Plan to Convert Nevada’s Pinyon Forests to Biomass Threatens Ancient Rituals
For centuries the pinyon trees of Nevada have nourished the Shoshone, Paiute and other peoples, giving them pine nuts, ingredients for soup, milk and even a place to pray. Now it is about to become something else: a profitable source of biomass.
The Pinyon-Juniper Partnership, a consortium backed by Senator Harry Reid, D-Nevada, plans to remove pinyon trees in Nevada’s arid Great Basin in a project it hopes will be a model for the western United States. This spring, the partnership will begin using chainsaws, masticators and prescribed burns to thin pinyon and juniper on 300,000 acres in Lincoln and White Pine Counties.
In addition to the economic benefits of the project, the partnership (spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM], the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and backed by groups that include Newmont Mining, the Nevada chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Nature Conservancy) also argues that replacing some pinyon in eastern Nevada’s Humboldt–Toiyabe National Forest with sagebrush and other vegetation will help prevent dangerous forest fires, allow for more wildlife viewing and hunting, and develop a biomass industry in Nevada that will convert wood chips to fuel and electricity. It already has at least one potential customer: A-Power Energy Generation Systems, a Chinese firm that is planning to build a biomass-generated electrical plant in Lincoln County. (An ironic aside: Despite the abundance of pinyon in the western United States, the pine nuts on U.S. supermarket shelves come, increasingly, from China.)
The plans to reduce pinyon could eventually result in 20 million to 60 million tons of pinyon-juniper biomass. Six million tons of biomass can result from “a really light thinning” of a million acres, says Dusty Mohler, a forester and utilities manager for the partnership.
Though some Native leaders welcome pinyon biomass as a potential source of income for tribes, many are wary of what the partnership’s plan will mean for land rights, traditional pinyon ceremonies and the environment. “This is our land,” says Johnnie Bobb, the 60-year-old chief of the Western Shoshone National Council. “This is our sacred food.”
The Western Shoshone territory overlaps much of Nevada, which contains almost 10 million acres of pinyon pine. Despite a United Nations decision that the U.S. government has violated Western Shoshone sovereignty, the BLM considers the territory public land and has opened it up to nuclear testing, mining and the extraction of other natural resources. The BLM has generally followed a policy of dealing with the individual tribal governments of reservations set up by the U.S. government and not with the Western Shoshone National Council, which includes representatives from all of the Western Shoshone tribes.
No one on the National Council was informed about the project, though partnership representatives have met with the Ely Shoshone Tribe to discuss thinning invasive juniper on their land. “I would like to see the BLM and the Forest Service listen more to our elders, and not take advantage of our tribes,” says Bobb. “Thin the pinyon trees, but don’t burn them—you can’t go backward if you burn the pinyon trees up.” (It takes 150 years for a pinyon pine to start creating healthy seeds, which it then does on about a five-year cycle, with the seeds only being viable for a short time.)
“What they call public land—which is really treaty land—will be open to privatization, just like the gold mines, without any benefit to the Indian people,” claims Bobb’s wife, cultural psychologist Bonnie Eberhardt Bobb. In addition to the possibility of desertification and encroachment on sacred sites, she and Western Shoshone National Council sub-chief Allen Moss are concerned about soil radiation from the Nevada Test Site in adjacent Nye County. “Lots of areas where they are planning on cutting trees are part of the ‘downwinders,’?” says Moss, referring to areas down-wind of nuclear blasts. “Back in 1955, when they were doing nuclear testing, a lot of the radiation fell through that country. Once they remove the trees, there’s nothing to hold back that contamination.”
The Western Shoshone will not be the only tribe affected by pinyon conversion to biomass. Ron Johnny, an attorney and the environmental director for the Summit Lake Paiutes, said the BLM should do more to contact tribes and families that travel to eastern Nevada for harvesting and ceremonies. By law, he said, all federally recognized tribes who may be affected need to be contacted.
Shoshone harvesting pinyon tree nuts for ceremonies must compete with deer, elk, ruffed grouse, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits and blue jays, and are further handicapped by federal regulations that allow them to collect only 25 pounds of pinyon nuts per person, per year, Bobb says. “Most of the members of our tribe who pick pine nuts have to sneak around. We feel bad that we have to do this on our own Shoshone land.”
Sarah Adler, a co-chair of the partnership and the USDA Nevada state director of rural development, believes the partnership’s plan will be good for the land and for rural development in Nevada. “What happens on that land,” she says, “has to be to the benefit of the land. It won’t be driven by an industry’s need for biomass.
“The idea of the partnership,” Addler adds, “is to have a wide number of experts engaged; people who are range scientists, wildlife biologists, vegetation experts; people who are inside and outside of the BLM and Forest Service…. The engagement would include the tribes.”
The partnership sponsored at least one large outreach program: its Las Vegas Summit in December 2010, which brought together representatives from 175 organizations, but still left out many of the tribes that should be participating in this process. Tansey Smith, the tribal state environmental liaison at the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada was one of the few Native representatives who attended. “The summit was a place we had to travel to,” she explains. “Not a lot of tribes have funding to make that trip. “There are a lot of people who weren’t able to make it.”
Not everyone believes the partnership is intentionally excluding the tribes, nor that they are going to harm their interests. “One of the things that’s going to happen,” says Gerry Emm, fisheries director for the Walker River Paiute tribe and a presenter at the Las Vegas conference, “is that there’s going to be a huge push to do an education outreach to the tribes. I think once that process starts it’ll settle a lot of people’s fears.”
Adler says two reservations will initially be affected: the Goshutes near the Utah border and the Ely Shoshone. Chairman Alvin Marques of the Ely Shoshone did not return phone calls for this article, but the Goshutes were surprised to get the news that they’re being targeted. “I have not heard anything about it,” said Ed Naranjo, the tribal administrator for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation, when asked for comment. “The BLM came through here a couple of years ago and asked where our sacred sites were, and that was the last I heard of it. I’m a little concerned because a lot of tribes come here for ceremonial purposes, and I don’t have a lot of confidence in the BLM.”